“Over the next decade, up to 10 million more girls will be at risk of becoming child brides”, says United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in a new analysis. According to the report, this would set back years of progress in reducing child marriages.
COVID-19: A threat to progress against child marriage – released on international women’s day, warns that school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, and parental deaths are causes for the potential increase in child marriage.
The report says that these marriages act as a coping mechanism in times of economic fragility and uncertainty, including conflicts, food crises, and disasters. Additionally, according to evidence, the decisions about a girl’s education and marriage are made in parallel making education a protective factor.
UNICEF mentions that even before the advent of the pandemic, 100 million girls were at risk of becoming child brides over the next 10 years. However, in the past decade, the proportion of girls married as a child has decreased from 1 in 4 to 1 in 5, a fifteen percent decrease. This is 25 million child marriages avoided.
However, this progress can be averted by the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage,” said UNICEF Director Henrietta Fore.
According to the report, school closures due to interrupted education increase marriage risk by 25% per year. 2% of girls will never return to school and thus will face a higher risk of marriage.
In countries where dowry is common the impact of the pandemic on child marriages ranges from, “decreased risk of 4% to an increased risk of 1%”, because the impact on households’ ability to afford dowry may impact child marriages.
Pandemic has led to travel restrictions and social distancing, making it difficult to avail services that aim to protect them from child marriage and gender-based violence. This means lower access to contraceptive measures. Additionally, access to the justice system is also hampered, which acts as a final resolve against illegal marriages.
Almost 650 million girls and women alive today around the world were married in childhood, with half of those marriages occurring in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India, and Nigeria.
To off-set the impacts of COVID-19 and end the practice by 2030 as the target set out in the Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 states, the progress on the matter must be significantly accelerated.
To mitigate the toll on girls and their families, Fore suggested that the world should reopen schools, implement effective laws and policies and ensure access to health and social services including sexual and reproductive health services. With this and measures for comprehensive social protection for families, the world can reduce child marriages.
By doing so, she said, “we can significantly reduce a girl’s risk of having her childhood stolen through child marriage.”